Jiang Zemin, a president and a meme, died this week, aged 96.
On “60 Minutes” in 2000, he was asked whether he was running China as a ‘developmental dictatorship’. Jiang Zemin was defiant. “Of course not,” he answered, capping an interview where he quoted from the Gettysburg address.
He was colorful, even eccentric, compared to grey apparatchiks who made up the Chinese Communist Party. A showman (playing public games of ping pong, showing off his Hawaiian guitar skills, crooning the Chinese community of L.A. with a selection from “Beijing Opera”), a boor (combing his hair in front of the Spanish king [above], publicly berating Hong Kong journalists with his thickly-accented English, applauding enthusiastically at his own portrait during a Communist Party parade), a charmer. He gave bear hug to a stunned President Yeltsin at a press conference in Beijing as their countries settled their border issues. He sang a karaoke version of Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” at the Asia-Pacific summit in 1996 with Fidel Ramos of the Philippines [below], and often broke out into “O Sole Mio” at banquets (once with Pavarotti). He asked Condoleezza Rice to dance with him, and at another press conference, this time with Bill Clinton, there was much debate and light-hearted banter – a turn of events which would be quite unimaginable nowadays.
He had to be a charmer, as he travelled far and wide to build support for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. That same visit to America had included a stop at Harvard where he joked that even at his age (71), his hearing is still sharp enough to hear the demonstrators outside, and that he would simply have to speak louder. He also appeared to have admitted a certain responsibility for the Tiananmen massacre: “It goes without saying that, naturally, we may have shortcomings and even make some mistakes in our work.”
Those were the days. No Chinese leader before or since had been or would ever be that candid, that ingratiating again. But Jiang had made a career out of being agreeable: first as one of the “flower-vases” – a term for low-level technocrats who were all decoration, no action; then as an unassuming and peripheral Politburo member; and finally as a compromise candidate between the warring hardliners and reformists in the wake of Tiananmen, and an agreeable front man for the grey eminence of Deng Xiaoping.
His rule domestically was a time of quiescence bliss – but not for the Tibetans or Falun Gong supporters that he persecuted, nor for state-owned employees who lost their jobs as China privatized – but Jiang encapsulated China’s peaceful rise in many ways. He stood for a time where it seemed possible that China could still be a normal pluralistic society. His 1997 Politburo standing committee was the first time in Chinese history that the state had not had a soldier at the core of its power (perhaps first time since the days of Dowager Empress Cixi) and his retirement, albeit protracted, was the only time in the Chinese Communist Party’s history that a peaceful handover of power took place.
After his retirement, Jiang’s images have become gifs and emojis on Chinese social media. It was with a mixture of affection and hilarity that he was often portrayed him as a toad, alluding to his wide mouth, portly physique, square spectacles, and often high-waisted trousers. The unlikely new fans who came of age and prosperity during Jiang’s presidency called themselves “toad-worshippers”.
Most memorable images of Jiang were of his public swims: at Waikiki Beach in Hawaii with black googles and a pinkish-purple swimhat, and floating languidly on the Dead Sea during a state visit to Israel – first by a Chinese president. Rumors about his health had persisted throughout his presidency – at Hong Kong handover in 1997, Jiang looked unhealthy leading to rumors that he had suffered a heart attack. These swims were his attempts to prove otherwise, but they were unfavourably compared with Mao’s Great Swim across the Yangzi. No Chinese leader since had conducted such performative acts of athleticism, even though the elite still trundle down annually for a leadership conference at Beidaihe, a beach resort on the Bohai Sea where Mao loved to swim. (Despite Chairman Xi’s assertion to the Washington Post that, “I like sports, and swimming is my favorite,” there’s no photo of his swimming).
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